Overhearing two pop-culturists argue about this comedy series, you'd be forgiven for mistaking it for a debate over gun-control or Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Passions can run high when a U.S. Office apologist clashes with a U.K. Office purist, leading to heated exchanges about whether David Brent was a more repulsively hilarious boss than Michael Scott, or if Pam and Jim made a better will-they-or-won't-they? couple than Dawn and Tim. For anyone unfamiliar with either television program, this kind of battle can seem beyond trivial, but for those who've invested their time and hearts into these marathons of clerical awkwardness, it is as important as what to name your baby.
This Thursday, the U.S. Office will run its 200th and final episode (the U.K. version called it quits after fourteen), and as a devoted viewer of the series, I'm sentimental about seeing the final curtain fall on a story in which I've invested nine years of my life -- though for me, the show's become like a twin brother that went rabid, murdered his sibling and needs to be taken out behind the tool shed and mercifully put down.
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"People like to say that drama is real life with the boring bits taken out," Ricky Gervais explains during a BBC interview for The Office DVD special features. "But we left them in. We wanted to have people clock-watching, wasting their lives, waiting to get home."
This, along with some psychologically complex characters and an articulately paced narrative, is what made The Office such an emotionally penetrating experience for audiences. Even if you don't spend your waking hours chained to a desk (or are unemployed), pretty much everyone can relate to smothering your feelings about an obnoxious authority figure with a messiah complex, or being silently infatuated with the acquaintance across the room that (you assume) feels nothing for you, all the while questioning what the hell you're doing with your life and when you're going to make a change.
With so many people falling so deeply in love with Ricky Gervais's (and co-creator Stephen Merchant's) existential world of suffocated dreams and unfulfilled longing, it's no wonder there was so much skepticism surrounding NBC's decision to adopt the British comedy into a prime-time sitcom for American audiences.
In part, their cynicism was justified: Almost everything that made the stateside version of The Office great stemmed from its across-the-pond progenitor. The awkward humor about white guilt, the tense romance between the mildly pretty receptionist and the witty paper salesman, the hopelessly neurotic boss who desperately needs to be loved by everyone -- it was all there before King of the HIll co-creator Greg Daniels stripped away the accents and made the story palatable for an (admit it) less intelligent TV viewing public.
But in running 186 more episodes than the original, the U.S. Office was able to flesh out the original characters in directions that the U.K. Office never had the chance to do. In its original form, the supporting actors were interesting, but for the most part only served as bumpers for the three or four main cast members. It could've never dreamed of inventing pasty-fleshed barfly Meredith, sexually sadistic Jan or darkly schizophrenic con man Creed.
And surely we can all come together and agree that Dwight Schrute is one of the most memorable characters in television history. While the buzzard-like Gareth of the English Office was amusing as a power-hungry loser with a comic-book complex, Dwight's backwoods backstory with its German pragmatism and rural B&B set on a rustic beat farm (Cousin Mose!) seemed to provide an infinite number of richly textured gags.
Yet ultimately the most critical quandary that has to be faced when comparing the two sides of this clerical coin comes down to this: Jim and Pam, or Tim and Dawn? And here I have to admit, the Yanks defeated the Brits once again. If you want to scream until you're blue in the face that future Hobbit Martin Freeman made a better wise-cracking wonderboy than the Hollywood handsome John Krasinski, I won't fight you on that point. But the relentless pang of the heart we endured for three seasons waiting for Jim and Pam to finally transcend the so-clearly-wrong-for-them characters that stood in their way (damn you, Roy and Karen!) was a beautiful tragedy that kept us all biting our knuckles in anticipation.
Though once they found love in season four, The Office suddenly became as funny as a dead puppy.
It could be because of my personal feeling that marriage is a kind of surrender where two people agree that they're stuck with each other for life and let their personalities dissolve into the ether, but I'd rather stare at the contents of a vacuum cleaner trash bag than watch any Office scene involving the domestic bliss of Jim and Pam Halpert.
Perhaps this is why so many people stick to their guns in preferring the British Office, since Tim and Dawn came together only minutes before the series ended. And unfortunately, the American writers continually recycled this same dynamic through the (unarguably inferior) six seasons that followed, attempting to dangle a similar they-belong-together narrative with Michael and Holly, Andy and Erin, Darryl and Val and, with this final season, Dwight and Angela.
A handful of excellent episodes prove the exception, but for the most part, the last six seasons we endured with the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company were one long high-school tease. The show's cast and writers seemingly became aware of this over the last two years, with Steve Carell jumping ship in episode 148 (the same season that tried to remind us why we originally began watching the show, bringing in classic character cameos with episodes "Todd Packer" and "Threat Level Midnight") and an exhaustive level of sentimental clips of Jim and Pam before they became the type of couple whose calls you stopped taking years ago.
The writers seemed to have lost their nerve at some point. The pace of the show became much faster, losing the glacial pace that Ricky Gervais had originally envisioned as the crux of the drama. Every piece of conflict between characters would be resolved within the episode, leaving you with no reason to tune in the following week.
Even though the first 52 episodes the U.S. Office were a thrilling ride of top-shelf comedy, the series ultimately never took the same risks as the original, which reached dangerous (nearly sociopathic) levels of awkwardness. Most of this was due to its central characters: David Brent and Michael Scott. While Steve Carell did an excellent job of portraying a denial of self and reality with Scott, the sadness of his character was always palpable. If you tried, you could read through the pretense (of the character, not the actor) and see what kind of pain was lurking beneath the surface -- whereas David Brent was continually buried in an avalanche of fantasy. That awkward giggle and cowering posture he'd employ whenever people would give him the unamused hatred he deserved was unbearable -- which made for a unique brand of psychological comedy that most Americans were (presumably) unable to stomach.
None of this means that it's essential for anyone to choose sides between the two sitcoms. Like Star Trek and Star Wars, or the Stones and the Beatles, The Office U.K. and The Office U.S. can co-exist on their own terms and in their own right. But as with those other separate but equal cultural institutions, there will always be purists who insist you must pick one or the other.
For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.
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